ISS Cooperation Still Standing, But Will it Survive Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

ISS Cooperation Still Standing, But Will it Survive Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

The 15-nation International Space Station partnership has survived cost overruns, schedule delays, a space shuttle tragedy, space debris near misses, and terrestrial geopolitical challenges for almost three decades, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is different. Other space science and commercial space cooperation has fallen apart in the past week and the once-unthinkable prospect of trying to operate ISS without Russia isn’t so unthinkable anymore.

The breathtaking speed at which international space relationships have changed is mind-boggling. U.S. and European sanctions and Russian retaliation for them have upended the post-Cold War landscape in space just as it has on Earth. To recap:

  • the European Space Agency declared that the September launch of the Russian-European ExoMars 2022 mission is “very unlikely” and did not send its experts to begin integrating the ESA-built rover, still in Turin, Italy, with its Russian rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which Russia leases from Kazakhstan;
  • the U.K.-based company OneWeb suspended all its launches from Baikonur, arranged through the European-Russian company Starsem, after the head of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, demanded that the U.K. government divest itself of its shares in OneWeb and guarantee the communications satellite system would not be used for military purposes even as a batch of 36 satellites was just days from launch (the rocket now has been returned to its assembly building and the satellites stored nearby);
  • all other Starsem launches, executed through a partnership with the European launch services company Arianespace that launched Russian Soyuz rockets from Baikonur and its own launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana are suspended following Russia’s decision to withdraw its support personnel from Kourou (all 85 now have left);
  • Rogozin announced Russia will no longer sell RD-181 rocket engines, or service RD-180 rocket engines already sold, to U.S. companies and Rogozin sarcastically said they could use “broomsticks” instead;
  • Germany deliberately put its eROSITA instrument on the Russian-German Spektr-RG space telescope into safe mode to suspend that cooperation (Rogozin said Russia will bill Germany, and discontinued Russian-German scientific research taking place on ISS), and
  • Rogozin said Russia will not cooperate with NASA on a potential mission to Venus, Venera-D.

So what about ISS?

NASA has maintained a reassuring calmness that at the working level everything is fine. On Monday, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders said Russians and Americans at their respective flight control centers in Moscow and Houston “are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago.” The next day at a NASA Advisory Council meeting, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reiterated what the agency said in a written statement that the agency continues to work with all the ISS partners, including Russia’s Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the ISS.

The Expedition 66 crew now aboard ISS, L-R: Raja Chari (NASA), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Kayla Barron (NASA), and Mark Vande Hei (NASA). Dubrov and Vande Hei traveled to the ISS together on Soyuz MS-18 on April 9, 2021 and will return along with Shkaplerov on Soyuz MS-19 on March 30, 2022, landing in Kazakhstan. The two will have spent 355 days in space, a U.S. record for Vande Hei. The other four crew members are travelling on the U.S. Crew Dragon spacecraft. 

But that was days ago. Since then, Rogozin added to earlier comments about the future of ISS cooperation by hinting at walking away from the partnership if Americans don’t “cool down,” and the State Department is telling Americans to leave Russia. NASA has personnel in Russia to support mission control operations. The agency did not respond to requests from for how many are there and whether they are being relocated.

On March 2, Rogozin warned that he’d be closely monitoring American actions and “if they continue to be hostile we will return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station.” Yesterday, the Russian state-owned news outlet RIA-Novosti posted a Roscosmos-produced video showing the two Russian cosmonauts waving good-bye to NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, but instead of all three of them returning to Earth together as they are supposed to do on March 30, an animated sequence shows the cosmonauts separating the Russian segment of the ISS from the U.S. portion.

Russian space enthusiast Katya Pavlushchenko, who regularly tweets about the Russian space program, explained the video’s content on her Twitter feed. She says it is labeled “comic” and at the end says it is not based on real events. The link to the video in her tweet does not appear to work and RIA Novosti posted it on Telegram, a social media site does not access, but Keith Cowing at NASAWatch captured it in a tweet.  Considering it was made by Roscosmos, the humor is not obvious.

Rogozin is Director General of Roscosmos, Russia’s counterpart to NASA although it is a state corporation, not a government agency. He is renowned for his intemperate remarks and it is difficult to gauge how much is bluster and how much represents the views of the Russian government although he is Russia’s former ambassador to NATO and former Russian Deputy Prime Minister for the defense and aerospace sectors. Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director for the Secure World Foundation, notes that “he is not a space person by any stretch of the imagination and his career has predisposed him to look at the West in a rivalrous way.”

NASA has not responded to requests from for an update on its assessment of the status of ISS operations or reaction to the video.

Keeping the ISS partnership together through thick and thin has been critical both because it has served as testament to the post-Cold War world order and technical interdependency.

As Lueders said on Monday, ISS was “created as an international partnership with joint dependencies, which is what makes it such an amazing program.” It would be “very difficult” to operate it without them.

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk.  Illustration credit: NASA

The ISS has many critics because of its high cost to build (about $100 billion for the U.S. portion) and operate (about $3 billion a year for NASA). It is a scientific research facility and a lot of experiments have been conducted, but none that have resulted in a “killer app” with such obvious value to humans on Earth that it demonstrates ISS is worth the expense.

Instead, ISS wins praise as an engineering marvel and a model of international cooperation. On the latter score, supporters argue it is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Since 1993 when Russia joined the ongoing U.S.-European-Canadian-Japanese space station program, the ISS has survived cost overruns, schedule delays, the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy (limiting crew size for more than two years until the shuttle was flying again), U.S. decisions to cancel modules it planned to build and delays for Russian modules, and the U.S. decision to terminate the space shuttle after construction was completed even though it was supposed to service the ISS throughout its lifetime. The partnership also withstood Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea that began the geopolitical shift that accelerated so dramatically in the past week.

Importantly, the ISS has also managed to dodge space debris, most recently caused by a Russian antisatellite test. Therein lies the rub. Moving the ISS either to avoid debris or periodically reboost its altitude to compensate for atmospheric drag relies on Russian propulsion systems. Engines on Russia’s Zvezda module or Progress cargo resupply ships are the only means to do that.  A U.S. cargo spacecraft, Northrop Grumman’s NG-17 Cygnus, currently berthed to the ISS, will do the first non-Russian operational orbit-raising manuever soon, but there is no plan to have Cygnus spacecraft permanently attached to ISS. Not to mention that Cygnus is launched by an Antares rocket that uses Russian RD-181 engines and a first stage built in Ukraine, so its availablity is in question. Northrop Grumman said it has what it needs for two more launches, but after that it will need an alternative launch vehicle.

Rogozin is correct when he says the United States wants to maintain cooperation on ISS because “it is impossible to manage the space station without us. We’re responsible for its navigation and fuel delivery.”

But Russia needs the U.S., too. NASA’s massive solar arrays provide electrical power for the Russian segment. And both benefit by having redundant mission control centers. As Lueders says, ISS is interdependent.

The Russian-owned portion of the ISS is quite modest: the habitation and propulsion module Zvezda (also called the Service Module), the brand new Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also called Nauka) that just arrived last summer after years of delay, the Rassvet and Poisk Mini-Research Modules (MRM-1 and MRM-2) that are docking ports and cargo storage areas, and Prichal, a multi-node docking port that was attached to Nauka in November.

The Zarya module (also called the Functional Cargo Block or FGB) was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States and is U.S.-owned.

What will happen if the partnership dissolves? There is no clear answer. All sides would suffer, not the least of which would be Russia. Russia will bear the brunt of all of this, losing revenue from Soyuz launches and RD-181 engine sales, the prestige of joining the U.S. and China in finally landing a spacecraft on Mars decades after its first attempts failed, the scientific knowledge from that and other space science missions, and perhaps most importantly the loss of trust from western partners and customers.

Two weeks ago the biggest question about the space station’s future was whether all the partners would agree to extend operations from 2024 to 2030. NASA hopes commercial space stations will be ready to replace it by then. NASA considers human access to space facilities in Earth orbit as critical to its long term plans to send people to the Moon and Mars in order to test out equipment and study human reaction to long duration spaceflight. Ensuring U.S. leadership in space and that China is not the only country with a space station is of national importance.

It’s possible that all of the ISS’s positive attributes will outweigh the geopolitical situation, but far from certain. As former NASA flight director and former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said at the NASA Advisory Council meeting on Tuesday, “this old flight director feels that the situation indicates that NASA should consider assembling a tiger team to prepare contingency plans in case that situation changes. It just seems prudent.”

Meanwhile, the ISS crew is continuing its plans for spacewalks on March 15 and 23, the arrival of three Russian cosmonauts on March 18, and the departure of Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei on March 30.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.